The War in Truth

The War in Truth

This is the text of a lecture given at a colloquium entitled Postmodernism and Truth, held at the University of Sunderland in November, 1993. It is copyright Steven Connor, 1997.

My title layers together the themes of war and truth in three distinct forms of correlation. If I begin by distinguishing these different forms of correlation between war and truth it is in the interests of identifying a more stubborn compacting of the themes of war and truth which has become characteristic of forms of postmodern thinking.

1) First of all, the war in truth may seem to suggest the truth about the war, the last war – since it is the last war which always presents the greatest difficulties of truth-telling – but also war in general. The difficulty of assigning the truth about war, any war, but especially the most recent, is due to the notorious vulnerability of truth to war. Truth is not only, as the comfortable cliché has it, the first casualty of any war, the injuries to truth are perhaps its longest-lasting legacy.

But the intense vulnerability of truth to the effects of war, with the associated difficulties of arriving at the truth of any war, goes along logically but also a little disconcertingly, with a sense of the necessary affiliation of war and truth. Precisely because war puts truth in its most extreme jeopardy, war becomes the refining and defining ordeal of truth. Truth is thus not just rent or weakened by war, but also hardened, made more entire, cauterized in its clarifying duress. If it is not possible to tell the truth about war, any war, or war in general, then it may not be possible to guarantee truth against other forms of obstruction or peril. If truth is always in the gift of war, in the guerdon it grants to the victor, always thus part of war’s spoils, then how will it be possible to defend truth from war’s despoliations? And with what defend it, or with what else but war?

2) All this is redoubled in the fact that war characteristically has truth as its ground, motive, or object. One of the ways of characterising a war might be that it is a conflict lifted into some more general dispute regarding truth. If this is true, then all wars are either initially, or become in time, wars in the name of truth, campaigns to defend, uphold truth, extend its dominions or defeat its adversaries. This would then be the second correlation in my title. The war in truth is also a war for or over truth. War is in truth in the sense that truth is the element in which war moves. As truth becomes increasingly threatened during the course of a war, the need to safeguard the testimony of the truth about the war often becomes the reason to continue fighting it. After a certain point, the war becomes a struggle to preserve the truth – from the viewpoint, naturally of each of the adversaries – of the war itself, a war therefore against war’s attrition of truth.

In fact, it is precisely because of 2) that 1) is so hard to establish; precisely because war is over truth, the truth about the war is hard to distinguish from the truth delivered as part of its victory.

Thus, we have a contorted situation in which truth is both the imperilled victim of war and its motive principle. Truth and war are both opposites and confederates. Truth is nowhere to be found in war and everywhere at work in it. The only guaranteeable truths are those that transcend conflict and contest – but at the same time the only certain guarantee of a truthful belief is a willingness to fight for it, or subject it to contest.

3) If war is characteristically war over truth, then a reversal may also be possible. For it has appeared to many, and perhaps especially those recent thinkers who have been seen as the most influential formulaters of philosophical postmodernism, that truth may be impossible to separate from contention, division, war. The theory wars that have raged throughout the last twenty years might equally be characterised as truth-wars – wars over possession of the truth, wars to establish the truth that there must be truth, or the countervailing truth that truth is illusion, ideology, ruse of power or mere function of propositions. Truth, or the ideal of truth may be indivisible, but it is just this ambition that appears to sanction the ordeals of division and conflict on truth’s behalf.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the two recent areas of fierce controversy which have centred upon the Second World War; the question of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism and the so-called Paul de Man affair. I have here no swift adjudications to offer on these controversies, preferring instead, and for the moment, to point to the ways in which the question of the truth of the allegations made against both philosophers is twisted to a pitch of intensity by the experience of the war. Here, in the fierce, distilling inferno of war, may be found the truth of the different assaults allegedly mounted upon metaphysics and organicism in the work of Heidegger (briskly disposed of by the Guardian some time ago as `the Nazi philosopher’) and de Man. In bello veritas; if the truth of the war can be established for each and both, then this seems to offer to yield the truth of their truth. For the defenders of Heidegger and de Man, or those, like Derrida, who are sceptical about the claim that war offers truth in its singleness and entirety, the motto may offer to reverse itself: in veritatis bellum. The war over the truth of the war embroils truth in the same kinds of hostility and violence from which the war and its victory claims to deliver it.

For Christopher Norris, the Gulf War provides exactly the same kind of defining test of the commitment to truth. For Norris, Baudrillard’s scandalous assertion that the Gulf War would not and could not `take place’ in the same way as other wars, so caught up would be the experience of the war in the technologies of simulation, is massively repudiated by the palpable evidence of the suffering inflicted upon the Iraqi armies and civilian population. As such, the unanswerable ostension of the Gulf War proclaims some more general truth about the evasiveness and self-delusions of fellow-travelling postmodern accounts of truth. As so often, it is the emergency of war that signals both the vulnerability of truth, as registered in the epigraph Norris provides in Uncritical Theory from Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and permits the emergence of its self-evident, as it were annihilating actuality. Norris associates himself with Adorno’s horror at the `confounding of truth and lies… [which] marks the victory in the field of logical organization of the principle that lies crushed on that of battle’ (Norris 1992: 5). Nevertheless, Adorno’s statement seems to give away more than Norris is prepared to, in its paradoxical conjoining of horror at the sense that truth has become indissociable from power and awareness that some such association may henceforth in fact be inescapable. `The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power…not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic regimes, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false’, Norris has Adorno declare, but he appears not to notice Adorno’s glum acknowledgement that this conversion of truth into power is `a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power’ (ibid). For Norris, the experience of war offers up both the horrific spectacle of the tormenting and maiming of truth in war and the purifying prospect of its deliverance. For Adorno, as, perhaps, for a number of postmodern theorists on this question, it may no longer be possible to preserve or rescue the truth of truth from questions of power; or if truth is in any fashion to be preserved, it will have to be passed through its most destructive element.

Jacqueline Rose has recently offered a psychoanalytic reading of this chiasmic amity of war and truth which coheres with this picture. Reading Freud’s exchange with Einstein about the nature of war in the tense years preceding the Second World War, and borrowing his title, `Why War’, for her own essay, Rose suggests that war operates, for Freud and for others `as a limit to the possibility of absolute or total knowledge, at the same time as such absolute or total knowledge seems over and again to be offered as one cause – if not the cause – of war’ (1993: 16). Modern warfare seems to be defined by a particularly close association between the idea of total conflict and total truth. But total truth can signal both the annulment and the accompaniment of war. This takes two contrasting forms. Firstly, modern rationality characterises itself by reference to the utopian ideal of universal peace which it promises. The end or culmination of knowledge, in this sense, coincides with the end or abolition of war. The negative form of this totality is provided in the writings of the nineteenth-century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz. War itself exhibits a tendency to epistemic distension, in the way that it proliferates theory about itself. Clausewitz’s work is characteristically modern in describing and predicting not just the practices of `total war’ which have flourished so nightmarishly in the twentieth century, but also the `total theory’ to match and regulate it. However, as Rose points out, the problem for Clausewitz is that no war ever in fact totally accords with the theory that attempts to control it. `In Clausewitz’s discourse on war’, Rose observes, `theory always falls short. It is incapable of calculating, or mastering, the chaos, inconsistency, and randomness of the object it is meant to predict and represent’ (ibid, 22). War is therefore both the expression of theory, the grisly literalisation of its will-to-truth – such that `the attempt to theorize and master war, to subordinate it to absolute knowledge, becomes a way or perpetuating or repeating war itself (ibid, 23-4) – and the systematic exception to theory, the blind and bloody epoché of its truth. I take from Rose, therefore, the apprehension that war is both the confirmation and the crisis of a certain style of what may be called `modern’ thought. As she puts it, `the issue seems to be not so much what might be the truth about war, but the relationship of war to the category of truth’ (ibid, 24).

Such a thematic can also be discerned in what has come to be called `nuclear criticism’. In what is possibly the inaugurating text of this genre of theoretical enquiry, Derrida points to the `fabulously textual’ nature of nuclear war (1984: 23). Although it is the object of the most intense and meticulous planning and strategy (indeed, perhaps because it is), total nuclear war could never, by its nature, Derrida argues, attain the status of an event within history or historical object, since it would mark the coming to an end of history and the possibility of human knowledge and historical testimony. The event of the ending of history cannot be encompassed within the series of events that constitutes history, since by its nature it will destroy all the records and traces that would enable it to be construed as an event, even if one could imagine survivors with a lingering interest in construing anything in any way at all. The absolute end of history can never be present or past, but only ever anticipated in a theory. Such theory is in one sense the total available truth about nuclear war, since the effect of its coming to pass would be to evaporate all other or subsequent truths. At the same time, and for something of the same reason, the all-too-conceivable occurrence of nuclear war will, almost as a planned necessity, pass beyond the control of planning, strategy and scenario-projection of all kinds. To try to conceive of and think through the nature of nuclear war is to encounter in heightened form that mutual interference of war and truth adverted to by Jacqueline Rose. Here, the impossibility of a truth that could survive the effects of the war makes the issue of truth-telling in this protracted prelude to absolute ending an exacting one.

The entanglement of truth in war and war in truth becomes all the more visible against the background of the more general claims regularly advanced nowadays for the mutual definition and contamination of truth by power and vice versa, claims which are nowhere more emphatically announced, of course, than in the work of Foucault. For Foucault, at least after the decisive Nietzschean turn which his work underwent from the late 1960s, the most urgent task for thought was to dismantle truth’s endogenous account of itself as a gradual emergence into its own freedom and self-determination. By contrast, Foucault’s genealogical method aimed to show the entanglement of truth with power at every point. Foucault sees the very division between true and false statements as the most important form of the ordering of discourse, as a kind of primal violence that is both enacted upon discourse and effected through its operations. The approving gloss that Foucault gives of Nietzsche’s notion of the will-to-truth in his `Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ establishes the deep grain of shared assumption between the two writers:

The historical analysis of this rancorous will to knowledge reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice (that there is no right, not even in the act of knowing, to truth or a foundation for truth) and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind).(Foucault 1977: 162)

Foucault enlarges rhapsodically on Nietzsche’s claims that the will-to-knowledge is to be construed, not as a progressive redemption of truth from slavery, war and violence, but as a force and a passion which exacts from its subjects a `progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence’ (ibid). The desire for knowledge is for Nietzsche, in some sentences which Foucault quotes with some relish, both a Schopenhaurean principle of biological survival (`The desire for knowledge…fears nothing but its own extinction’, writes Nietzsche) and the greatest threat to the survival of the human species, since `it may be that mankind may eventually perish from this passion for knowledge’ (quoted, Foucault 1977: 163). This idea resurfaces in the latter portions of the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he calls attention to the murderous forms taken by the historically most recent form of the will-to-knowledge, the desire for knowledge over and mastery of the forms of life itself, `bio-truth’ or `bio-power':

This formidable power of death…now presents itself as the counterpart of power that acts positively upon life, which undertakes to administer it, to increase it, to multiply it, to exert over it precise controls and general regulations. Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of all; whole populations are incited to kill one another in the name of their need to live.(1979: 136-7)

Foucault’s account has recently been confirmed and given a point of historical origin in Page DuBois’s study of the social bases of Greek metaphysical thought in her Torture and Truth (1991). DuBois suggests that the distinctly Greek sense of truth as privative, as aletheia or un-forgetting, along with the defining metaphysical division between eternal truth and sublunary seeming, derive from the juridical practice in ancient Athens of submitting the bodies of slaves to torture. Having no rights to truth, nor rational possession of the logos, unlike free Athenian citizens, slaves were paradoxically held to be indubitable verifiers of the truth under conditions of physical torture. The possessor of truth, or rational enquirer after it, cannot be trusted to speak or to supply the truth; the slave, who has no access to truth, is by this very token its most reliable vehicle:

Truth is constituted as residing in the body of the slave; because he can apprehend reason, without possessing reason, under coercion he is assumed to speak the truth. The free man, the citizen, because he possesses reason, can lie freely, recognizing that he may lose his rights, but choosing to gamble that his authority will authorize his speech. The slave, incapable of reasoning, can only produce truth under coercion, can produce truth only under coercion.(DuBois 1991: 68)

The association of truth with testing, trial and torture therefore produces a division within truth. Truth is deported or displaced from itself, compelled to take a diversion through the bodies of those who obscure or conceal it – slaves, women, nature, the body, the witless impediment of matter itself. This necessary departure or deviation from the presentness and self-sufficiency of truth is what at once imperils and guarantees it. Truth, henceforth, is never entire and itself, precisely because it is always fetched from elsewhere, and because its very entirety depends upon the process, purgative and corrupting at once, through the body of, and as, truth’s other. Truth undergoes a painful division; but it also enforces itself through the processes of painful division, in its wresting of its own integrity out of error or enigma. In his long review of DuBois’s book which is reprinted as the chapter entitled `Getting at Truth’ in his belligerent book The Truth About Postmodernism, Christopher Norris has attacked the over-generalization of DuBois’s argument, suggesting that it too hastily discredits those traditions of humane critique which are aimed at the reduction of violence and the enlargement of the logos. This is a position which it is important to take account of and I shall return to it later to try to do so.

There seem broadly to be three characteristic responses to this general sense of the redhandedness of truth, its close implication with forms of violence. The first is the Nietzschean perspective. As we have seen, Nietzsche advances the most extreme version of the claim that truth is never more than the ruse of power, such that to tell the truth about the world, or to claim to occupy the position of the truth-teller is always to claim or exercise power over the world, the power to divide, regulate, excise and annihilate. Nietzsche’s exposure of the will-to-power that pulsates through every discourse of truth is not itself supposed to be vulnerable to its own unmasking criticism, since it does no claim to be anything other than the assertion or efflorescence of power- truth. The truth of the argument about the will-to-truth is not referential but performative, in the sense that it does not name a truth lying somewhere outside its own discourse, but rather enacts the force of a truth through the exercise and display of that discourse. Nietzsche’s discourse is, so to speak, dynamic rather than dialectic. By declaring war on truth, Nietzsche aims to strip bare the warlike nature of all truth.

Nietzsche’s seeming exposure of the will-to-truth has produced in the century that has succeeded him an ethically antagonistic current, which draws deeply on his analysis, but adds to it the articulation of a desire for an abatement of the violence associated with the will-to-truth. One example here is the later thought of Heidegger, which famously excoriates the violence involved in metaphysical thinking and urges the necessity for a destruction of its mutilating, destructive force. Against the metaphysical divisions between subject and object, existence and predication, Heidegger proposes in his essay `On the Essence of Truth’ a process of `opening':

“Truth” is not a feature of correct propositions which are asserted of an “object” by a human “subject” and then are “valid” somewhere in what sphere we know not; rather, truth is disclosure of entities through which an openness essentially unfolds.(1978: 127)

What interests me most about Heidegger’s argument is its addictive impetus. I mean by this that Heidegger’s reduction of metaphysics creates an insatiable craving for absolute guarantees against the fact or possibility of violence, a craving that, once inaugurated, can only be satisfied by higher and higher doses of philosophical nonviolence. This leads Heidegger himself to react against his own earlier ill-advised use of the phrase `the truth of Being’ in his Letter on Humanism of 1947, and to insist that aletheia, or the opening of Being, must be prior to the conceptual violence inflicted upon Being by the very constatation of its truth, prior, that is, to the privation inflicted on truth by the Hellenic privative:

Insofar as truth is understood in the traditional “natural” sense as the correspondence of knowledge with beings, but also insofar as truth is interpreted as the certainty of the knowledge of Being, aletheia, unconcealment in the sense of an opening, may not be equated with truth. Rather, aletheia, unconcealment thought as opening, first grants the possibility of truth.(ibid: 389)

One of the most notable and recently one of the most influential of these addicts is Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas, as is well known, finds Heidegger’s thinking of Being as peaceful unconcealment itself reductive and violent, insofar as it is mortgaged to a kind of egology – a logic of the Same, grounded in and characterised as the consolidation of identity through the reduction of the Other of existence itself to a theme or object for knowledge.

The correlation between knowledge and being, or the thematics of contemplation, indicates both a difference and a difference that is overcome in the true. Here the known is understood and appropriated by knowledge, and as it were freed of its otherness. In the realm of truth, being, as the other of thought becomes the characteristic property of thought as knowledge.(1989: 76)

Levinas proposes an ethics against truth, insofar as truth appears to him to be a coercion of existence into propositional form. When Levinas affirms that `ethics is first philosophy’, he is announcing an ethics that cannot be derived from reason or truth or ever fully become an object of knowledge. The ethical relation is always, in Levinas’s terms `exterior’ or `infinite’, a primal condition of vulnerability and obligation to the other which breaches and traverses the self-possession of the Same, and thus cannot be resumed or encapsulated in moral law or ethical recommendations of the more familiar kind – or not without scaling it down into knowability.

However, as Levinas realises, there is no way to escape the propositional nature of truth entirely, if only because he is himself condemned to reduce the ethical relation to a theme for knowledge in order to write about it intelligibly (and, of course, for Levinas as for many others, intelligibility has a vicious streak in it). Time and again Levinas diagnoses in others, even those, such as Heidegger and Buber, for whose work he has qualified approval, a relapse into the violence of propositionality (1989: 68-9). I think that Levinas’s work is representative of much postmodern thinking. The assault mounted upon truth in much postmodern thinking is in fact and effect, often such an assault upon propositional truth, or upon truth reduced to the functions of propositionality. The rejection of propositional truth thus can also be seen in the work of Foucault, who sees in the making of statements a prime enactment of the ordering of discourse and, through discourse, of the world. Truth, for Foucault, becomes power when it becomes a matter of institutionalised statements. For Rorty, who rejects truth on the grounds not that it is violent, but that it is uninteresting, or even chimerical, it is the propositionality of truth which establishes its contingency. `Truth’, Rorty declares, along with Dewey and others, `is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences’ (1989: 7). If this is so, then we can scarcely expect ever to get to a truth `out there’, which is not shaped by the structure and intent of our propositions. (One might suggest, incidentally, that the hostility of postmodern thought to truth considered primarily as `truth-telling’ might account for the continuing mutual incomprehension of the Continental and analytic traditions. For the tradition of enquiry which is carried through the work of Russell, Wittgenstein, Austin, Quine and Davidson is interested almost exclusively in the nature of truth-telling, or the conditions of truthfulness attaching to certain kinds of statement rather than in the more abstruse questions attaching to what things are true and how we can know whether or not they are true.)

Levinas’s recoil from truth is thus an extreme representative of a more generalised recoil from the violence of truth, or truth-telling which characterises postmodern thought. But Levinas’s work is representative, not just in its unqualified assertion of the necessity of a nonviolent thinking of truth, its assertion of truth as a way of being, or to give it a Heideggerian spin, a comportment toward Being, rather than a way of saying, but also and more particularly in the self-reflexive anguish of its culpability in the matter of truth, its seemingly necessary failure to escape being decoyed into propositions, rules, arguments, values, being drawn into the garish light of intelligibility framed as inquisition. Habermas will characterise this anguish as a `performative self-contradiction’, whereby post-structuralist thought is condemned to assume or rely upon notions of truth, validity and value, even where their arguments appear to dissolve such assumptions.

There are different ways of handling this question of performative self-contradiction or the allegations of cryptonormativity generally, which I will come to in a moment. Perhaps it is sufficient to say at this point that all of them seem to rest upon a sense of the lethality of contradiction that I think is mistaken.

If one can designate these two responses to the violence of truth, the Nietzschean and the Levinasian, as escalation and disarmament, than there is a third exit, which needs to be considered. This is represented in the work of Habermas, and those who turn towards him as the best hope for a continuation of the Enlightenment tradition of critique which sees truth as the antagonist of war. Habermas espouses a version of the consensus theory of truth, the theory that truth comes about, not when statements correspond to the way things are in the world, but when consensus can be reached. But not just any old consensus of course. Truth can only be assumed when a maximal number of discursive participants, acting in good faith, and in conditions purged of every kind of disadvantage or discursive duress, come to agreement. Under these conditions, nothing can get in the way of good reasons, and the `unforced force of the better argument’ can be expected to emerge. It is in this respect that Habermas’s theory restores the ancient link between `the truth of statements’ and `the intention of the good and true life’. Technically, the absolute truth of unlimited consensus can only be expected to appear with the removal of all relations of domination. Truth equals peace and justice, which is not quite the same thing as claiming that truth necessarily leads to truth and justice, of course. Habermas also seems to acknowledge the link between truth and force, however, the fact, as one might say, that truth has teeth, or comes armed. Under conditions of maximal freedom and absence of discursive constraints, the `unforced force of the better argument’ can be liberated. Unlike Foucault and the Nietzschean tradition that Foucault brings to a contemporary climax, however, Habermas sees the force of truth as residing in itself alone, rather than in its associated effects. If the force of truth transcends use and advantage – the whole domain that Habermas calls the strategic – it is not only subject to no kind of forcing itself, it is also unforcing – it forces itself upon us as the necessity of our freedom, not as a harsh or punitive constraining of freedom. We can say, therefore, that, in contrast both to truth as Nietzschean arms-race, and truth as Levinasian disarmament, Habermas proposes a view of truth as a kind of just war: neither denying the force of force at work in the deliberation of truth, nor allowing it full rein. Habermas therefore seems to allow the possibility of a kind of passage through force in order to escape it.

A postmodern objection to this view, of course, is that, pending the realisation of such ideal conditions, the assumption of truth is itself insufficiently protected from the exercise of violence, especially the violent dominion of one category of statement, and those who claim to speak in its name, over others. Rather than making cause with Habermas or with his detractors, I would propose that we should resist all the options that propose to deliver us sole and whole out of the violence of truth. My argument would be that what is wrong with the different exits from the problem of truth’s belligerence is precisely that they are governed by the desire for exit.

Let me return, as I indicated I would, to what I called the anguish of culpability characteristic of some postmodern attempts to remit the force of force in truth. For the Enlightenment side, if I may be permitted the glib brutality of this shorthand, it is often suggested that the contradiction to be found in different forms everywhere in postmodern thought is a weakness. This is certainly the argument of Habermas throughout The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987). Habermas wields a two-sided sword in this book. If the critics of modernity, which would include Nietzsche, Bataille, Adorno, Foucault and Derrida, set out to diminish or molest the claims to truthfulness implicit in modern critique, they are condemned to one of two uncomfortable outcomes.

i) By opting out of the discourse of truth, such criticism sacrifices the very authority it needs to make its argument count for anything.

ii) Should such a form of critique attempt to retain the traditional kinds of authority for its arguments – the claim that they are true, along with normative claims about our duty to accord with the truth – then they prove the indispensability of precisely the traditions they claim to dispose of.

It seems to me that, in his indefatigable campaign on behalf of a Habermasian Enlightenment, Christopher Norris often borrows this pincer strategy. For Norris, as for Habermas, the incoherence, the jagged lack of fit between constatation and performance, of between what is asserted and what is assumed about truth is the guarantee of postmodernism’s self-cancellation. Thus, in his account of Page DuBois’s Torture and Truth, he insists that there is another kind of truth from the one associated with violence and mystification and that Page DuBois herself depends upon it to elaborate her case.

This is a version of the self-refutation argument which is regularly advanced against relativists, according to which it is claimed that relativism cannot be coherently advanced as a theory, since the relativist must either suicidally grant the truth of exactly contrary arguments to her own, or inconsistently, which is to say violently, maintain the absolute dominion of the relativist position against all others. The standard reply to which a relativist whose arguments are in any shape at all should have recourse is that a relativist neither needs nor intends to advance the claims of relativism as a hard and fast theory, or set of axiological principles, which would be proof against any and all objections under any or all circumstances. Here is Stanley Fish’s typically, infuriatingly elegant formulation of this position:

The anti-foundationalist thesis…does not involve a contradiction, as it would if what was being asserted was the impossibility of foundational assertion; but since what is being asserted is that assertions – about foundations or anything else – have to make their way against objections and counter-examples, anti-foundationalism can without contradiction include itself under its own scope and await the objections one might make to it; and so long as those objections are successfully met and turned back by those who preach anti-foundationalism (a preaching and a turning back I am performing at this very moment), anti-foundationalism can be asserted as absolutely true since (at least for the time being) there is no argument that holds the field against it.(1989: 30)

There are other versions of this defence of course. Barbara Herrnstein Smith suggests that it is possible to be a relativist without contradiction, but insists that understanding how this might be so involves the believer in absolute or objective truth stepping outside the framework of their either/or assumptions about truth (either truth or chaos, either universal values or the tumult of contending beliefs) to imagine a different, more conditional and contingent bearing on truth. (For Stanley Fish, by contrast, the very notion of anybody really being able to step outside of their assumptions is laughably incoherent.) Where Stanley Fish and others such as Barbara Herrnstein Smith seem to hold that it is possible coherently to maintain an `an absolute for the time being’ truth of relativism, Richard Rorty argues that it is not actually possible for anyone to be a relativist, where this would mean claiming that there really was a self-evident, indivisible, propositional whole truth of relativism, and prefers to call himself a pragmatist as a result.

What I find interesting about both sides of the argument is the strong coherentist assumptions that they share. For both, performative self-contradiction represents a weakness or culpability; both sides respond by trying to mitigate the intolerable bite of contradiction. Something similar can be found in the work of those postmodern thinkers whose emphasis has been more squarely on the question of the violence of truth. Such thinking characteristically either represses awareness of its culpable cryptonormativity or voluntaristically fantasizes forms of redemption or resolution for itself. As an example of the first strategy I would offer the work both of Foucault and of Lyotard. In both of these writers there is an undeclared war between the agonistic assumption that truth is nothing but power or the struggle for victory and the ethical dread of being drawn into this fray. Thus Foucault is regarded as useful by many writers on the political left because of the importance he attaches to patterns of resistance within regimes of power, even though his work provides absolutely no grounds for distinguishing `good’ from `bad’ resistance. (Undoubtedly, the rise of extreme nationalism in Europe is an example of resistance to hegemonic ideas, but Foucault offers us no grounds either for supporting or constraining these forces of resistance.) There is a similar contradiction in the work of Lyotard between the absolute commitment to the agon of language-games and genres of discourse, as well as to the value of warring differend over the negotiated truces of dispute, and his routinely insisted on dread of violence, and especially the violence of metanarrative. In the cases both of Foucault and Lyotard, the engagement between the two sides of their work is meticulously refused. Their work denies the contradiction which makes it possible by simply taking no cognizance of it.

In the case of Levinas, the anguish of culpability is taken more seriously. Much of Levinas’s work is taken up with a fidgety brooding on the necessity for ethical compromise involved in even attempting to specify the ethical relation, the violation into intelligibility that his work involves. Levinas attempts to escape the consequences of this in much the same way as Heidegger and Buber do before him and de Man does as his contemporary. Levinas continues to assert the absolute priority of the ethical relation over all the forms of reduction, narrowing, or division necessarily practised within philosophical thinking about this relation. Foucault and Lyotard, then, wish contradiction away by taking no account of it; Levinas wishes contradiction away just by wishing it away, by saying no to the philosophical reduction of the ethical relation to the stasis of a thematic truth.

Not to drag this out any further, my point is that there is an odd congruity between the two ways of reducing contradiction that I have, no doubt over-summarily described: the desire to escape violence (the violence of contradiction itself) characteristic of Levinas, and the desire to defeat it characteristic of the elective heirs of Enlightenment critique. Is it not the same congruity as that which I observed a moment ago with respect to the relativist and anti-relativist positions. In all cases, all parties seem to agree that, in order to be consistently or convincingly maintained, there must be coherence in truth; that contradiction cannot be abetted, but most always be abated in the name of truth. What many modern and postmodern accounts of truth have in common, in short, is a desire for the whole truth, a truth entirely in possession of itself and its effects, and a truth that can be had and known instantaneously and all in one go.

An alternative to this attitude is suggested by the debate between Levinas and Derrida which has been renewed at intervals since 1963. In what is still the single most powerful reading of Levinas’s work that I have read, Derrida’s `Violence and Metaphysics’ insists that the contradiction which Levinas attempts to reduce in his work, between the peace of the ethical relation and the war waged in the malignant lucidity of metaphysics and philosophical knowledge, is in fact unassuagable. In a system of thought in which the self is always already breached or inhabited by obligation to the other, in a painful proximity that is both violence and the condition for peace, the vocation of peace is never wholly distinguishable from warlike intent or possibility. What, for instance, if language, on which so much depends for Levinas, as `the philosophical logos, the only one in which peace may be declared’ is itself, in its dependence upon the spacing of one subject with respect to another, `inhabited by war’ (Derrida 1978: 116). If language and abstract thought are, in Foucault’s words, `a violence that we do to things’, then a worse violence may be the refusal of any possibility of address to or engagement with the other, and the only possible peace a kind of attentiveness, a `vigilance [which] is a violence chosen as the least violence’ (ibid: 117), by language towards the threat of its own violence:

There is war only after the opening of discourse, and war dies out only at the end of discourse. Peace, like silence, is the strange vocation of a language called outside itself by itself. But since finite silence is also the medium of violence, language can only indefinitely tend towards justice by acknowledging and practicing the violence within it. Violence against violence. Economy of violence. An economy irreducible to what Levinas envisions in the word. If light is the element of violence, one must combat light with a certain other light, in order to avoid the worst violence, the violence of the night which precedes or represses discourse.(ibid)

Derrida’s argument is not that it is impossible to expunge war from human relations, and so we had better just learn to rub along with it, while all the time seeking, of course, to circumscribe its most injurious effects. His argument is that, at bottom, the total opposition to war is not peace, but itself sometimes another species of total war. If I understand Derrida’s notion of an `economy of violence’ aright, it means, not that we should maintain the competing interests of good and evil, peace and war, at a sort of pragmatically optimal level, but that we should learn to perceive the coincidence – or to use the antique term, the différance – of these contraries. Where total peace mimics the exterminism of total war, then the `avowal of war within discourse’ offers the paradoxical prospect of a reduction of hostilities:

Speech is doubtless the first defeat of violence, but paradoxically, violence did not exist before the possibility of speech. The philosopher (man) must speak and write within this war of light, a war in which he always already knows himself to be engaged; a war which he knows is inescapable, except by denying discourse, that is, by risking the worst violence. This is why this avowal of war within discourse, an avowal which is not yet peace, signifies the opposite of bellicosity; the bellicosity – and who has shown this better than Hegel? – whose best accomplice within history is irenics.(ibid)

I’m inclined to use this notion to distinguish between two postmodernisms. The first of these is characterized by the intensity of its desire to exculpate itself from the possibility of violence. This desire is a kind of metaphysical wholehoggery that, in being the exact obverse to the tradition of absolute truth it claims to displace, is also its obedient mirror, and as such represents a resumption rather than a cessation of metaphysical hostilities. Many of those I have already discussed – Levinas, Foucault, Lyotard – might be included in this category. Against this `bad’ and actually existing postmodernism I want to propose, of course, a `good’ and hitherto largely imaginary postmodernism. This postmodernism would be characterized by its attempt to inhabit its divided, culpable condition as fully as possible (though fullness would be beside the point, or part of the problem). Much would need to be said to specify the implications of this inhabitation of contradiction. Certainly, it would involve much more than simply acknowledging contradiction; insofar as acknowledgement implies merely an affable or stoical invulnerability to the force of contradiction, it may be seen as in fact just another form of evasion of it. The kind of philosophical and political outlook that I have in mind would involve encountering contradiction between truths and the modes of truthfulness that produce them as necessity rather than failure, as opportunity rather than guilt. It would involve the generation of ways of thinking and acting that would pay equal respect both to the alternatives involved in any contradiction and to the urgent desire to escape contradiction that is always part of its warlike aspiration to peace (warlike because its peace depends upon the cancellation either of one alternative in the contradiction, or the cancellation of both in some higher synthesis.)

I want to insist on the necessity not so much for plural truths, as for plural forms of truthfulness. I join with Richard Campbell, for example, who, in his Truth and Historicity, urges philosophy to regain contact with the complex history of attitudes towards truth as well as the richly diverse (though also implacably opposed) range of meanings and functions which truth, and truthfulness, have had in philosophy and continue to have in non-philosophical discourse (1992: 395ff). I think it is not helpful to attempt to define the nature of truth or truthfulness either in the positive terms suggested by Habermas or in the negative terms of those who see truth as merely indistinguishable from power, violence, war. In particular, I am unimpressed by claims that truth is either always on the side of war or always opposed to it.

This instantly raises the question of what kind of truce or managed peace is possible between competing forms or criteria of truth – truth of correspondence, truth of coherence, consensus truth, and so forth. It is often assumed that plurality must either be enfeebled, insufficiently defended against falsity, deceit, ideology, etc., or covertly aggressive, as in the claims mounted Tom Docherty and Christopher Norris about the smiling annihilation of difference or political will effected by American neo-pragmatism. I believe it is possible to imagine and progressively to actualize a less nerveless kind of plurality, one that neither softens competing claims into benign mutual adjustment (Rorty), nor hardens them into principled segregation (Lyotard), but aims simultaneously to intensify differences and the necessary mutual impingement of differences. In such a dispensation it would be unthinkable that one would merely abandon the strong functions and values that are concentrated in the notion of truth. Among these I would include the importance for example of the hygienes of self-doubt and falsification procedure characteristic of scientific rationality and the demands made for conditions of deliberation to guarantee the legitimacy of truths reached as a result of unconstrained consensus. But I will want to hold out against the idea that different forms of truthfulness are summarizable or compressible into one `underlying’ or `higher order’ form of truth. At the same time, I will also want to resist the idea that different forms of truthfulness are `incommensurable’ partly because I regard the idea of anything being immeasurable on any terms against anything else as wholly unsustainable and partly because I wish to retain awareness of the ways in which different forms of truth always bear upon, or make address to each other. The mutual hostility of different modes of truth is the necessary condition of this mutual address. We have been so busy waging wars-to-end-all-wars on behalf of particular and narrowly-conceived modes of truth and truthfulness that we have neglected the possibility of reasoned deliberation about the forms of mutative interference between different forms of truth. In sum, and to have done, a postmodern dispensation with regard to truth, or at least the one I’m here pitching for, is no simple laying down of arms. Let us understand it instead as a militant truce.


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Derrida, Jacques (1978) Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——————— (1984) `No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)’, trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis, Diacritics, 14, 20-31.

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Foucault, Michel (1977) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Oxford: Blackwell.

——————- (1979) The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, London: Allen Lane.

Habermas, Jürgen (1987) The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Norris, Christopher (1992) Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

———————– (1993) The Truth About Postmodernism, Oxford: Blackwell.

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Rose, Jacqueline (1993) Why War? Psychoanalysis, Politics, and the Return to Melanie Klein, Oxford, UK and Cambridge USA: Basil Blackwell,

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein (1988) Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory, Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.